Do I Really Need Other People to Interpret the Bible?

Timothy Ward wisely states that “We Christians have taken the doctrine of “Sola Scriptura” and made it “Solo Scriptura”. None of the reformers would have EVER commended Christians reading the Bible on their own without the aid of others.” Personally, I see this at work all the time. Often times I hear Christians saying things like: “Why can’t we just read the Bible; why do we need people to give their opinions?” or, “What about sola scriptura – isn’t scripture sufficient to train me in godliness? Isn’t it Catholic to believe that we need others to interpret the Bible?” Yes, the Bible is sufficient – but YOU AREN’T! You absolutely need other people to interpret the Bible alongside you, and here’s why:

1. Because you have a sinful bias. While it’s true that scripture is living, active, and sufficient, it’s not true that we come to the Bible without biases. Scripture itself tells us that we are sinful; that the very first sin man ever committed was to twist the word of God to say what we wanted it to say. You’re lying to yourself if you believe your reading of the Bible is totally pure; the Bible itself says otherwise. You need other people to show you what you’re intentionally leaving out as you read the word of God. This is why the NT rarely if ever speaks of “personal devotions” or anything of the sort – the word of God is meant to be dispersed in community.
2. Because you have a cultural bias. Every culture has a bias. Our American culture tends to twist the Bible’s words into encouraging, pithy thoughts regarding our personal ambition. I guarantee you’ve done it in the last few months, even unaware. Our culture, like every culture, operates out of a grand narrative, and we unwittingly impose that narrative into the narrative of scripture without the help of others. In this regard, it is absolutely essential that every Christian be in communications with the history of the church and the church around the world.
3. Because you need the whole body of Christ. One person is able to teach, another to encourage, another to create beautiful music about God’s word. You do not have all the gifts of Jesus Christ. You might have the gift of knowledge, and acquire lots of ideas while reading the Bible; but without taking that same word to someone with the gift of exhortation, you’ll never be convicted. The same is true the other way around. We are not autonomous people any longer now that we’re part of Christ’s body. Paul Tripp compares Christians to people who see themselves in carnival mirrors. Unlike the rest of the world, the lights are on – we believe God’s word. But we still distort our own image because of our sinful bias, and so we need others to apply the word into our lives for us.
4. Because you’re commanded to be under the teaching of the elders. If you’re not an elder at a church, the fact is, you haven’t been entrusted with the word of God. The Bible commands that some men be entrusted with teaching God’s word, and if you’re not one of them, you’re commanded to listen to their interpretation and weigh it with God’s word. Look to the word of God itself, and it will point you your elders. You might object that with the wealth of material out there, we can choose our own teachers, but that’s not quite true. The role of an elder is not just to teach, but to have authority to exercise church discipline and confront you about sin. An author who lives 2,000 miles away can’t do that. They don’t know you.

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  1. A man once told me that he didn’t need to listen to what people like Swindoll and MacArthur said about the Bible. Who were they? he asked. He said he had the Holy Spirit and the Bible and that was all he needed in order to know God’s truth.

    That kind of talk makes me wonder what he does should he inadvertently learn some new Scriptural insight in conversation with someone. Does he stuff his fingers in his ears and start saying “La la la la – I can’t hear you – la la la la”?

    • Tim – what a GREAT example of the type of mindset we Ameriacn Evangelicals so readily adopt. I’ve heard the same sentiment, in not so explicit terms, over and over again. I find it ironic that the very same people who point to “Just the Bible and the Spirit” refuse to look at the fact that the Bible and the Spirit themselves say that we’re sinful, blind, and that we need the body of Christ and the teaching elders to be instructed in righteousness for God’s glory.

      • I know. What would Apollos have done without Priscilla and Aquila? It seems to me that was a tutorial bathed in the blessings of the Holy Spirit.

  2. OK guys
    Help me with a verse of Scripture. “1Jn_2:27 But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie–just as it has taught you, abide in him.” [ESV]
    Yes, Paul rightly lists the various gifts given to the members of the body. But what about someone who has no access to commentaries by acknowledged, sound expositors? Will he be left high and dry with a possible misinterpretation of the Word?

    • Hey John – what is your question, exactly? I think the message of scripture is sufficiently clear, don’t get me wrong. I’m a believer in the perspecuity of scripture. The gospel message will come through to anyone who reads with the anointing of the Holy Spirit. But by the same token, I can’t imagine that reading the scriptures in isolation can lead to “teaching, correcting, rebuking and training in righteousness” to nearly the degree it was designed to without sound teachers and the body of Christ. Does that answer your question?

  3. Hi
    Thanks for this – very helpful; except I have a question on your statement “If you’re not an elder at a church, the fact is, you haven’t been entrusted with the word of God.” I am not an elder, and sense that this won’t ever be the case. I do “listen to [the elders’] interpretation and weigh it with God’s word.” But I also teach a regular man’s Bible class in our church (with the eldership’s approval). I’ve also recently been asked (by a church leader) to help lead some of the Bible studies at our home group. Purely in terms of number of hours per year spent doing it (not size of audience), I may well be doing more teaching than any of the leadership at the present moment. I also have (like you) a website where I uload Bible teaching material. I guess there are plenty of others like me. What does this statement mean for us? Should we be doing this? Perhaps you could expand on the role of teachers (who are not elders) in the local church.
    Blessings, Rob

    • That’s a great question, Rob. I would say that if you’re not an elder, it’s especially true that the elders of the church know you as a teacher of the word. I’ve been to churches where the elders were so far separated from the content being taught that their Bible study leaders were teaching clearly heretical interpretations of the Word for years (and to this day, in fact), without anyone knowing. I’d say its very important that all the material from non-Elders comes under the agreed upon doctrine of the Elders and their interpretation of God’s word.

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